On the Screen: ‘Orion and the Dark’ is resonant, weird

Fear of the dark is natural, not some problem that Orion has to go on adventure to overcome

Dreamworks Animation have been perhaps too quietly plugging away and putting out great stuff for decades. Despite some breakout hits like “Shrek” or “How to Train Your Dragon,” their films don’t seem to receive the same amount of reliable attention as those put out by Disney or Illumination.

Case in point, I wholly missed that they put out a feature film, “Orion and the Dark,” earlier this month. Part of that is because it was somewhat unceremoniously dumped onto Netflix rather than given a theatrical release. That’s a shame because it’s a wholly solid film.

It follows the titular Orion, played by Jacob Tremblay, an 11-year-old suffering from extreme anxiety that prevents him from making connections with his peers, also from living his life. Late one night, screaming into the dark that encroaches upon his bedroom, he’s confronted by Dark — the concept personified as a large, hooded man voiced by Paul Walter Hauser.

Dark, it turns out, is developing some hurt feelings because the children of the world are so scared of him. He’s a chill dude, and he wants to show Orion that. He whisks the child away for a rotation of the earth, to showcase the magic of the night.

It’s a simple premise, one that seems to belie a simple narrative and themes about overcoming fears. Where the film is interesting is where it diverges from that narrative with a metatextual framing device that regularly upends its story and pushes deeper into themes of self-confidence and identity — “fear of the dark is natural,” not some problem that Orion has to go on adventure to overcome.

The film is written by Charlie Kaufman, probably best known for writing “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” but familiar to me because he in 2020 wrote and directed the deliciously weird and resonant “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” which I saw last year when I asked a friend for “a film that will change my life.”

I had perhaps built up “Orion” in my head based on that association. I anticipated a weird, incisive film — perhaps one that could “change my life.” It’s not that, but it is good. It’s a solid children’s film, one packed with interesting ideas and some surprisingly dense concepts.

“Orion” is certainly weird. There are moments in the film where its lead contends with existential dread about human mortality and a sequence where the personification of Sleep does her gentle work of helping the tired denizens of humanity drift away with the use of pillows, chloroform and a hammer.

There’s a sense of ambition in its themes and in the way the narrative develops as a bedtime story told over generations — to a touching conclusion.

“Orion and the Dark” isn’t the best animated children’s film I’ve ever seen, but it is another reliably interesting and affecting release by Dreamworks, available right now to all Netflix subscribers.

Reach reporter Jake Dye at jacob.dye@peninsulaclarion.com.